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A calming influence on a noisy capital

Shanaka Amarasinghe
In the city with three international cricket venues, the sport is visible wherever you go

Despite the thick glass and air-conditioned interior, the SSC members' enclosure is not so far removed that you cannot hear the soothing "crack" of the West Indian's bat as he drives the local magician to long-off. Colombo is witnessing one of the great lessons of cricket: How To Play World-Class Spin 101 by Brian Lara. The ball reaches the boundary before the hot butter cuttlefish reaches my lips.

Lara v Murali, a comfy chair, batter-fried prawns and devilled pork - it's a good life, this. The cricket-and-Colombo relationship is a hazardous one. The experiences can be cerebral and lazy or raw and emotionally charged.

From that languorous moment, my mind fast-forwards three months to the Royal v Thomian cricket match, the oldest unbroken cricket encounter in the world, spanning over 130 years. The pristine venue, which now belongs to the Greatest Left-Hander Ever, will be transformed into a writhing mass of humanity, revelling in the apex of hedonism. The Royal-Thomian match is the biggest school game by far, and sees old boys of both schools flying down from their respective rat races to wash their cares down with arrack and beer. Cricket becomes incidental.

Five years prior to Lara's wizardry, for one day Colombo was a ghost town. The normally loud, chaotic and irritable traffic of the city was reduced to a few lone three-wheelers ignoring the lonely traffic lights blinking obliviously at roundabouts. The auto-rickshaws were desperate to catch the last stragglers, who were equally desperate to get home. Fast. Bosses tacitly understood that if the unthinkable was achieved, no one would be in at work on Monday.

It was March 17, 1996. Colombo had all its eyes on Lahore as Sri Lanka took on newly acquired foes Australia in the final of the World Cup.

Just before midnight, when Arjuna Ranatunga guided the winning runs past third man Colombo erupted. Tsunami survivors speak of how the sea receded for a kilometre before unfurling itself with devastating fury upon the shore. That was how Sri Lankan cricket fans poured out onto the hitherto deserted streets of Colombo. For some delirious moments, Colombo's woes - it was still reeling from a deadly attack on its central bank which killed hundreds just weeks ago - were forgotten.

It is uncanny how Colombo's cricketing triumphs so closely followed its disasters. The evening of Sri Lanka's second World Cup final was on the April 28, 2007. Once again Colombo receded indoors to witness their team take on the now-familiar foe, Australia. But a Colombo united in its temporary hatred of Adam Gilchrist was suddenly plunged into pitch darkness. It was not, as many thought, an untimely power failure due to the incompetence of local electricity authorities.

It was, in fact, Colombo's first air raid. The now-defunct LTTE, paying scant respect to the wishes of a nation, chose the final's night to attempt a suicide mission on the city. While watching the anti-aircraft fire light up the blackened sky (it's ironic how beautiful explosions and tracers are when you're not on the receiving end) with no television or radio to tell us what was going on, the thoughts of many Colombo inhabitants were far away in Barbados, rather than being occupied by the very real threat of a C4-laden plane falling out of the sky into their back gardens.

Such is the intertwined nature of cricket, history and Colombo.

Moratuwa, home to the Tyronne Fernando Stadium, is a suburb of Colombo with a subculture all its own, and has produced cricketers of the calibre of Duleep Mendis, Romesh Kaluwitharana and Ajantha Mendis. The riotous baila-singing fans of Moratuwa have set the tone for the raucous, yet good-natured cricket-watching habits of Colombo.

Well-travelled cricket fans have likened Colombo's grounds to the Caribbean. The noise, the food, the carefree culture and the picturesque grounds are only some of the similarities. The papare bands - a cacophonic mixture of trumpets, drums and cymbals - produce the signature sounds of Colombo. Despite their authenticity, the papares play a brand of baila not much unlike the Portguese kaffringha. A tradition left over from their 16th century colonisation of the country. Paradoxically, the bands beat out wholly unprintable songs to the tune of old favourites like "Oh When the Saints…", ensuring the visiting Barmy Army would not feel too far from home. They too are tunes that hail back to the 1796 British landing and subsequent 150-year rule.

Well-travelled cricket fans have likened Colombo's grounds to the Caribbean. The noise, the food, the carefree culture and the picturesque grounds are only some of the similarities. The papare bands - a cacophonic mixture of trumpets, drums and cymbals - produce the signature sounds of Colombo

Ironically, this very sound is what Sachin Tendulkar managed to get halted during the fifth day's play of the decisive third Test at the P Sara Oval earlier this year. Colombo is always keen to oblige, and at Tendulkar's request the band was asked to pipe down, lest he be distracted in attempting to win the game for India. In the end, VVS Laxman succeeded where Tendulkar failed. No good karma can proceed from silencing the papare band.

The P Sara is, and always has been, the best Test match pitch in Colombo. It has been home to perhaps Sri Lanka's best batsman. Mahadevan Sathasivam - after whom a stand at the ground is named - was even better than Bradman, legend has it. His career ended tragically, when he was accused in his wife's murder. He was later acquitted, but was never the same. Most who have seen them both, testify that Sathasivam was better than Aravinda, who is traditionally considered Colombo's finest product, closely followed by Mahela Jayawardene.

P Sara has also seen the Don. Twenty thousand filled the ground on the day Bradman batted there, and my choir master at St Michael's Anglican Church was nearly killed in the stampede as tickets ran out. He was taken to hospital and missed the innings. Colombo is the only Asian city in which Bradman has batted.

P Sara is also home to the Tamil Union, Murali's club. The Sinhalese Sports Club, Moors Cricket Club and the Burgher Recreation Club are all located within a stone's throw from each other in the heart of Colombo. They represent the city's multi-ethnicity and cricketing commonality. For those who find this nomenclature exclusivist and objectionable, there is always the Nondescripts Cricket Club, bordering the SSC.

It is no coincidence that Colombo is the city with the most Test venues in world cricket. Sri Lanka is probably also the subcontinental country with the highest attendance at Test matches. Colombites know their cricket and have high standards. Colombo is also home to the highest Test total and Sri Lankan batsmen also hold the two highest partnerships in Test match cricket.

Colombo has kept custody of the World Cup - albeit for the shortest reign of a champion. The end of the war saw triumphant scenes that were rivalled only by the celebrations of that first World Cup victory. Peace will guarantee that the only explosiveness witnessed will be at the hands of the world's batsmen. It would be silly to miss the fireworks in one of the world's craziest cricket cities during the World Twenty20.

From its idyllic tree-lined residential areas to its pulsing commercial district and further afield in its shanty towns and affluent suburbs, cricket is the one thread that binds a city together. The Premadasa Stadium is set in the heartland of Colombo's footballing culture. It is not uncommon to see counterfeit Argentina shirts with "Crespo" or Italian replicas with "Inzaghi" on their backs. But they're all at the cricket. Posh kids in tennis shoes play cricket in their paved driveways. Ragged kids play softball cricket just anywhere they can find, barefoot.

Whenever Pakistan play in Colombo, they have sizeable local support. Similarly the Indians, many of whom work in Colombo. I learned the hard way that you never - if you value your peace of mind - engage an Indian cricket fan with regard to team selection. Cricket is probably the one thing everyone in Colombo has an opinion about. There are cricketers in Parliament now, and I daresay nobody talks to them about public policy in the parliamentary cafeteria. They'll be wanting to know what it was like to end Phil DeFreitas' career.

While the car horns blare, bosses yell or babies scream, there is always the crack of leather on willow to soothe you.

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